Telling Eugene’s Story

Eugene led me down the stone steps past their kayaks and into the crawl space under their home on Flathead Lake. The cool cave carved out of the earth holds boxes of books and a collection of water air-up toys and several rat traps scattered along the floor. The traps were only mildly successful, as I’d later discover shelves loaded with leather-bound editions of The Message and rows of new hardbacks (like Eat this Book) nibbled through, these Montana rats literally taking Eugene’s advice. Stooping through the low entrance, Eugene flipped the switch and the bare 100 watt bulb flickered and sizzled. Eugene pointed to twin black metal cabinets stuffed full of letters, manuscripts, sermons, calendars, clippings from high school, college and decades at Christ Our King Presbyterian. It feels conservative to say that somewhere close to a bajillion people, every sort of person you can imagine, wrote Eugene letters. And Eugene responded to as many as he possibly could, stapling the original and his reply together and sliding them into a manilla folder. There’s a lifetime of love and craft and criticism and hope and struggle stored in that dank grotto.

I’ve spent hours in that space, rummaging through so much texture and so many stories. Over numerous trips, I’ve checked bag after bag at the airport, praying to God that these treasures wouldn’t be accidentally tossed on the wrong conveyer belt and land in some lost baggage claim office in Lithuania. I’ve even destroyed two of the Peterson’s bags trying to haul too much material home to Virginia (sorry, Jan). Whenever I’d come back up to the house, Eugene would ask, “Well, Winn, did you find anything worthwhile?” I’d smile big. Boy, did I. He always asks questions like this with genuine bewilderment. “I don’t know why anyone would be interested in any of this,” he’s said to me multiple times. “Everything has just been a gift.”

Eugene Peterson has had an immense impact on my life, and I’ve been privileged, as have so many others (nearly a bajillion), to correspond with him in letters, to spend time with him on several occasions. But when I said what I assumed would be a final goodbye to him and Jan in their living room in October 2016, I had no idea that by February I would be given the joy and responsibility of being Eugene’s biographer. For the past 18 months or so, I’ve been up to my kneecaps in research: diaries and letters and old slide reels, chatting with Eric and Leif and Karen, with the kaleidoscope of people they call friends. And now I’m turning to the actual task of writing, trying to narrate Eugene’s story, the many good years he and Jan have spent doing what the Petersons do: trying to pay attention to the holiness and the wonder of this life they’ve been given.

It seems right for me to let you know that this is the writing work I’ve been up to, and will be up to for a good while longer. This story deserves every bit of literary gumption I can muster — and then some. I hope to do Eugene justice.

The Day I Ask for Your Help

Fifteen years ago (I thought it was ten, but Miska had me do the math and bam! it’s 5 more than thought), I began my blog. For the past decade and half, most every Monday, I’ve scribbled a few words and posted them. This work has been my delight, and though some weeks the words may be lithe or fiery, other weeks they’re dinky and plain. It’s like our lives, isn’t it? Sometimes it revs; sometimes it putters. But the way forward is simply to keep moving, keep working, keep loving. Over these years I’ve slowly connected with you. Some of you are friends in the flesh. Some of you have become friends from a distance, with your emails or comments or Facebook connections. Some of you are quiet souls, but you’re there, reading. And I’m grateful.

I’ve always thought of my blog as one way that I can offer a small, simple gift to the world: a few words that I hope somehow contributes to the world’s beauty (rather than its desecration). I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded, but I’ve worked out of my desire to contribute something toward your own hope and joy. I pray that, here and there, you’ve found light and goodness in this space.

However, today is the day when I bluntly ask you to do something for me in return. Though it’s been 9 years since I’ve published a book, these longer works sit at the heart of what I have to offer as a writer. And yet, my books have received less than lackluster attention. The fine folks at Eerdmans have taken another gamble that they won’t lose their shirt on me, and they’ve published my first fiction: Love Big, Be Well: Letters to a Small-Town Church. And cue the fireworks: It’s released today. Amazon, big boys on the block as they are, actually started shipping books early, but the book is finally available nationwide today. It’s a party!

And I will not mince words: I need your help. Publishers talk about how important a writer’s “platform” is, and while there’s obvious truth to this notion, I’ve never much liked the word or the energy that surrounds it. The reality is that according to the Powers that Be, you are my platform. You are the people who (I hope) believe in my writing, find meaning in it and believe it’s worthy of being read. However, we are small in number. And I need your help especially today and then over the coming few weeks. I really don’t have any backup team; you’re it. If you think that my books should continue, then I need you to throw a little weight my way.

Here’s what you can do:

Buy the book. A straight up ask. I give away most of my words for free, but these words I need you to purchase. You can find Love Big, Be Well at Amazon, Hearts and Minds Books or your favorite local bookstore. And if possible, it helps to buy books today, as we launch it into the wide, wide world.

Consider purchasing the book as a gift for your pastor, friend, sibling, aunt (heck, your deranged neighbor who stares in your windows at night – at least it will keep him occupied for a couple evenings). It’s like $13 at Amazon (and Hearts and Minds is offering a 20% discount), and if you buy a couple copies, you get free shipping. I mean, you might as well spend the money on this Christmas gift rather than a new toe-ring for Grandma or a new fidget spinner for the cousins.

Send an email to a few of your friends who you think might be interested and tell them about the book. Lots of people are looking for new books as we move into the holidays, and most of us snag the books that people recommend to us. If you want someone else’s recommendation to pass along, you can use either of these images I’ve shared or you can tell them that some reviewers have compared it to Wendell Berry’s fiction or to Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Or better than all that, you can just tell them that a guy you know named Winn has written a book you think they might enjoy.

Review on Amazon, Goodreads and Barnes and Noble. Especially Amazon. The more reviews, the more people see the book; I don’t know how this magic works.

Thank you for reading, and thank you for your help.

 

 

 

Love Big. Be Well.

Roughly 4 1/2 years ago, a friend wrote to me, reflecting on the weary season she was in with their church, looking for a pastor. She asked what I’d be looking for in a pastor if I were part of a search team. I wrote her a reply that, I’m sure, was mostly unhelpful.

However, the question sent me down a rabbit hole, and I began to ponder how, over the previous decade or so, my convictions concerning what it means to be a pastor have solidified. I believe to be a pastor is at its heart to embrace a simple vocation, noble and sacred work – but I also believe the word pastor has been sullied. Big egos and power grabs and celebrities and climbing the ecclesial ladder have left us with a vocation that often feels impersonal and frankly has very little to with actually pastoring or worse, much of anything to do with God. More, I think the idea of church has hit on hard times too – what was once a place of friendship and belonging, a place of joy and grief and hope enacted together has become…well, something else.

Considering all this, I did what I normally do when trying to make sense of things – I began to scratch words on paper. However, these words grew into a story. I discovered a pastor named Jonas McAnn and a little church (Granby Presbyterian) in a little town (Granby, Virginia). The story began open-ended, with a lot of curiosity, as every good story should. I had no desire to deliver “a message” but rather to enter the lives of this beautiful, rough-around-the-edges community and see what I’d find.

I’m really pleased with the stories I discovered, the joys, the sorrows, the friendships. It feels like life.

This is an epistolary novel, told through letters Jonas writes to his congregation. I think you’ll grow to love these people just as I have.

The novel is set to release October 27, and I’ll have more to say as time draws near. But I’ll  put this out there now: I really need your help. If you’re reading this, this means you’re one of my loyal circle of readers. I’m counting on you for this one.

Here’s what you can do now:

Pre-order the book on Amazon

My publisher (Eerdmans) has made available 10 Advance Reader Copies. If you’d like to be considered for one (which would mean you agree to post a review on Amazon and Goodreads and say a good word on social media in some way in October), please email me with your name and physical address. I’ll collect all the names and have a drawing on Wednesday.

Begin to spread word among your circle of friends. Word of mouth is the only way Love Big. Be Well. will grab any traction.

 

Better Words, Sometimes Fewer Words

We’re drowning in words. And this is a crisis because we need good words more than ever. I think that those of us who work with words are a big part of the problem (I am, I know). We need to roll up our sleeves and put in the serious sweat.

Anytime we can cut three words and replace them with 1, do it. Anytime it’s possible to turn a 30 minute sermon or lecture to 15 minutes, then by God make it happen. This is not always possible, and sometimes beautiful, truthful language needs lots of space to breathe. But if we writers or preachers or teachers don’t have the fire-in-the-gut that leads to that magical ingredient: piercing clarity, then perhaps our work is not finished.

Now, we don’t need to be perfectionists about this, and God knows there’s more than a few times for me when a Sunday or a deadline’s rolled around and I just have to go with the best I can do. But let’s make that our dead-level aim: to do our best. And our best, I’m convinced, is almost always going to be less/smaller/quieter than what our first impulse suggests.

I also think we’re drowning in nonsensical, eyes-glazing-over words because some of us just really like our words (a lot) and they somehow signal (or lead to, we hope) validation. So the more words, the more we feed that frenzied quest to be noticed. I get it. I want to be noticed. I want people to give me the thumbs up. I want people to think that what I have to say is worth tuning in for, and I cringe to think of how often I’ve offered sentences that were really just me jumping up and down for attention. But that’s a soul-killing game, let me tell you. And it never pays off. And in that lustful glut, we end us saying all kinds of things that we don’t even really mean or understand, all in our attempt to sound clever or catch the attention of the passing parade. Exhausting. For everyone.

And if you’ll allow me a moment more (am I not heeding my own advice here?), we have piles of superfluous words because some of us are working out our every anxiety on paper for the world to see. I’m all for honest writing (please, give us more), but there’s a difference between writing that’s human/real and writing that’s exhibitionist. The former is a gift to the reader/listener. The latter is selfishness masquerading as courage. And I fear we’ve created an entire industry out of this masquerading bit. If we’re going to claim honesty, then let’s get really honest about this.

At any rate, for those of you who work with words, I’m your brother-in-arms. Thank you for bleeding on the page. And for those of you who read or listen to our words, thank you for keeping us honest. We’re in perilous times, and I’m with Dostoevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” And words, I believe, are (at their best) a crucial part of this beauty.

Speaking Amid the Pain

I believe that if we happen to be one of those folks who make it our work to attempt to say something helpful about God, someone who seeks to offer some light or clarity in this confusing world, then we must move into the pain. Sometimes we will speak with boldness. Sometimes we will whisper with a tremble in our voice. Sometimes, this ruin we encounter, the stories we enter, these heartaches, require only our silence.

If a preacher knows only principles and ideals and theological maxims but never goes silent… If a pastor refuses to wade into the dreadful terrors… If a pastor is too fearful to acknowledge the uncertainties, the oppressive fog… If a pastor never weeps with her people… If a pastor never wrangles with the weight covering one he loves or the sorrow pressing upon his own soul…

If a writer attempts to speak on questions of faith but never lays down the pen to wipe away the tears… If they seem certain of their cause or their position but they forget their own humanity — or the humanity of those they are writing to (or especially the humanity of those they are correcting or cajoling)… If a writer never comes up short, never finds their words paltry, never joins me in my quandary or sadness…

Such people, no matter how well intentioned, may provide me with insight or instruction, but they will inevitably leave me alone. And worse, despite their language, they will not offer me God.

It’s important for me to return to Orthodox theologian Thomas Hopko’s description of his sobering first days in seminary:

I entered St. Vladimir’s Seminary in 1957. The school was housed in an apartment house in New York City. Our professors were refugees from communist lands, mostly Russians. My first lesson in seminary was that I was never to say anything about God that I could not say over a furnace of burning babies.

I don’t know what to say about Hopko’s words here, what could I possibly say? But I believe I would trust a man who would write such a thing, a man who would know such a thing. I believe he would have something to say to me, something that would penetrate my heart. I believe he would offer me God, and I believe I would not be left alone.

 

A Deep Gratitude

I once read a poet I admire insist that if he had his way, he would write in isolation, anonymous. No one would even read his work until perhaps centuries later when someone stumbled upon his unsigned verse in the musty library of an old monastery. He would never be part of the give and take, that unique relationship between writer and reader. He would never have his name attached to his work, the signature that says, These are the words I have born into the world, for better or worse. This is the work that has been my labor and my pleasure. Who am I to critique another man’s dream, but for my two cents, this anonymous business is poppycock.

While I absolutely write for me (writing is often my way of prayer; writing is one of those few things I simply must do in this world), I also absolutely write for you. I am not merely doing art for art’s sake, but I hope and pray I’m also doing art for your sake. The truth is that (because I could not help myself) I would write even if no one ever read, even if I could never publish a book or scratch out a magazine piece for print, even if no one would ever receive what I had to give. I would write, but my writing would not be complete. You are required for that.

When I was seven, my mom gave me an old Sanger traveling salesman typewriter. Even as a young boy, she saw a glimmer of something in me, and I will always be grateful that she paid attention and encouraged me to bang out sentences. Immediately, I loaded a sheet of onion skin paper and began to hammer out my memoir titled My Life. I only completed 1/3 of a page before I ran out of material, but I immediately went searching for the next word. And I haven’t stopped since.

Over the past few days, something has returned to me again and again: deep gratitude to each of you who, in receiving my words, have encouraged me to keep searching. I’m grateful for those of you who have said “Thank you, this mattered to me” and those of you who’ve pushed back and made me work harder. It is a mysterious grace to me that there are a handful of folks in this world who buy my books and read my articles and return to these pages regularly, kind folks I can think of as “my readers.” This is no small thing. I wish I had something more eloquent to offer you, but what I feel, very profoundly, right now is this: Thank you.

Wendell Berry and the Gift of Interruption

Wendell Berry & Winn

Whenever I scratch out the short list of writers who, whenever everything is said and done, will have been my companions and teachers over the long story, Wendell Berry will certainly be there. Several months ago, I had the chance to visit with Wendell on his front porch, a misty day when the clouds were gray and the breeze steady. The conversation was rich, and there was much laughter. Later, a friend asked about the time, and I found myself saying, “You know, I felt enjoyed…” For a man who has spent his life writing of the necessity of presence, on that day Wendell practiced what he preached. And I am grateful.

Today is Wendell’s 80th birthday, and in the Collier house, birthdays are a big deal. I did not want the day to pass without wishing Wendell a wonderful 80th.

Among the many things we chatted about on that quiet Kentucky day was the work of writing. I shared with Wendell how I often feel pulled in disparate directions, that my life does not have simplicity of focus. True to form, Wendell dismantled the idols of our age, the idols of our art. The notions of the aloof writer enveloped in a cocoon of creativity, where the craft takes precedence over everything else — that is not true to the human soul, to any work we do that is truly good. Wendell shared much with me, and I will share this little bit with you:

You have been given a gift to help you resist the temptation to believe that your writing must never be interrupted. The modern idea that our art must always come first and never be interrupted is complete BS. I can’t live that way with my land. When you have a mule and it needs something, you can’t tell it to wait. I can’t tell Tanya to wait. I couldn’t tell my kids to wait, I still can’t most times. I can’t help but be interrupted by my neighbor. Now, I have some ways of being unfindable when I have to be, but I’m going to be interrupted.

Happy birthday, Wendell. That’s 80 good years. Here’s to the beauty of interruption. And to being unfindable here and there.

Rejection

I have a little history with rejection. When we were dating (and during our engagement), Miska tossed me to the curb. Twice. Both times, I more than deserved it, but the pavement hurt nonetheless. Once I was in a conversation with a highly respected literary agent, beginning a conversation about the possibility of his firm representing me. He asked how many readers I had on my site. “Well, I’m working on it,” I answered, “but maybe a couple thousand when it’s going well.”

“A day?” he asked.

“Uh, no, per month.”

The phone went silent. “Well…” the agent began, slowly. “Let me put this in context. One of my authors sometimes hits 100,000 per day.” There were a few short pleasantries to follow, but the conversation was effectively finished.

I’ve had religious leaders tell me I was no longer part of the fold (fair enough), and I’ve had an employer tell me they were eager to get rid of me (that stung a little). As of last month, all three of my books are now out of print, and while perhaps this is not exactly rejection – it does mean that readers have chosen to leave my blood, sweat and tears on the shelf. Anyone who wants to be a writer must have at least a twinge of masochism. The rejection pile will be tall; and there are days when the stack (and the voices the stack represents) looms so large you can’t see past it. We all have our stories. We all have to contend with the voices.

Of course, not all rejection is final. Sometimes it eventually works out well (Miska and I are working on 17 years), but sometimes a ‘no’ is truly a ‘no’ (the agent is not on my speed dial). Not all rejection is final, but all rejection levels a blow.

But rejection offers us a gift as well. For some of us, the conflict redirects our passions, showing us where we need to go – only we needed the push to make it happen. The employer who couldn’t wait for me to hit the door oversaw a corporation masquerading as a Christian ministry. I should never have been there. If I had lingered for the next few years, I would have died the death of a thousand cuts.

For some of us, the blow will stiffen our spine, put a fire in the belly. With Miska, I needed to step into my life with courage, and Miska provided the wake-up call. With writing, while I wince at every ‘thanks, but no thanks,’ the process eventually leads me back to the desk, back to the words. I return with a deeper hunger, a deeper commitment to the work I must do.

This is not finally about only your work but your life, about receiving all that comes, sorting through it, learning at every turn, discarding the junk and tenaciously trusting the good. Allow these encounters to guide you, not bury you.

Maybe what I most want to say is this: rejection does not define you. Every ‘no’ grants the opportunity to peer deep, to ask again what it is you really want to give yourself to. And then, whatever the answer, get to it.

A Friend Named Robert

Robert Benson.2

In the winter of 2004, I found myself in unexpected conversations with a publisher about the possibilities of my first book. In unfamiliar territory and attempting to wrap my brain around the strange world of publishing (and particularly, the far stranger world of publishing houses that cater to the religious market), I asked the acquisitions editor if I could talk to one of their authors to get a feel for how their press operated. The editor suggested I chat with Robert Benson, and there were few names she could have given that I would have welcomed more. A year earlier, Miska read Between the Dreaming and the Coming True and Living Prayer, an encounter which moved Robert onto that special section of our bookshelf reserved for our beloved writers, writers who had something of substance to say but who offered this substance with tender care for sentences and stories. We like the writers who do not beat the mystery off the page.

Robert and I chatted on the phone, arranging a meet up at the Frothy Monkey in Nashville, one of his haunts. I stood outside in the March cold, and a large black Mercedes slowed to the curb. As we’ve later rehearsed our meeting, Robert promises me he has never owned a Benz, but that is precisely how I remember it. Perhaps in my subconscious it’s just that Robert seems like the sort of man who deserves to own a Benz, if anyone does. Robert wore black pants, black long sleeve shirt, black shoes, a greying pony tail poking out from under his Yankees cap. He looked like the literary version of Robert De Niro. We ordered coffee, and Robert welcomed me into the writing world. He gave me advice providing a wise corrective for an upstart suffering from the temptation to strive too hard to manage his reputation (a reputation I didn’t even have). “Don’t take yourself too seriously,” Robert said. “simply be thankful when someone will pay you to put words on a page.”

In the years since the Frothy Monkey and the Benz that doesn’t exist, Robert and I have stayed in touch, though not as often as I’d like. A quick email. An off-the-cuff phone call about something one of us has written or just a hello. A couple visits. I now consider Robert a friend, and I trust he would say the same of me. In an email between myself and another good friend, Robert referred to me as “Our man in Virginia.” I like that. Funny what strikes you, huh?

There are a small cadre of writers I deeply respect, for their years tending to the work and settling comfortably into their well-weathered voice. It’s a real achievement in this world to labor, over a lifetime – refusing the fast way (if there really is such a thing), paying honor to the craft, staying quiet when silence is required, keeping clear of the dog-n-pony show as much as possible (and it’s never entirely possible), being a good human, helping others be good humans. It’s also a thing of beauty to encounter a writer who is a storyteller in the old sense. “Story” is all the rage these days, but I’m not sure if many of us know what we’re talking about. True storytellers do not let their too-many words get in the way. True storytellers believe the human experience powerful enough and painful enough and joyful enough to stand on its own, so their pen simply opens up the possibilities for us to hear it and see it fresh. I think most of us are too self-conscious for this kind of simplicity. Maybe we just need more years. Maybe we need more hunger. Robert is a true storyteller.

This is why I wanted to dote on Robert a little. I want you to know how much I admire him, how much I cherish him as one of our good writers. Robert has just released his newest book (or as Robert says, “no one unleashes one of my book upon the market, so much as they come and tell me it is time to give it up…”), and this is one Robert has teased me with for a long time now. Dancing on the Head of a Pen: The Practice of a Writing Life reflects on the intersection of spirit and art. If you are a writer, you’ll find every shade of joy in these pages. If you love reading good words, you’ll cherish this book at your bedside table. If you think about beauty or useful work or being human, Robert will be a friend to you.

Robert has been a generous friend to me. He has encouraged me in my writing when the terrain looked bleak. He’s been an advocate for me. Everybody needs a few friends in their life like Robert Benson, and I’m thankful.

Once Robert told me: “When in doubt, make sentences.” I’ve found this both helpful and hopeful. You can replace “sentences” with whatever your good work happens to be, and it shakes out just as well.

Sermon Born of Cold

The 12º chill did not stop him, though if he had even a lick of sense, it would have. The run was long and frigid, and the hot shower and hot coffee could not wrest the cold from his bones. Still, these were the hours he’d been given for writing his sermon, the words he listened for each week, the words that sometimes arrived as a slow burn but sometimes limped in with hat in hand, apologetic for their plainness.

So he settled by the fire, with his grandmother’s worn, patchwork quilt. He watched the flicker and curled his toes toward the warmth. Whatever comes will come. And it will all be a gift.